By Logan Darklighter, Mathieu Roy, and Michael Surbrook
(January 2034)

Sitting by himself at the table, Sanato Shigeru silently awaited his guest, sipping at his drink. The Chinese waiter had once again refilled his glass with the sort of near-sorcerous discretion found only in the finest of restaurants. And if the server found anything odd in seeing a Japanese executive in Neo York's finest Chinese restaurant, he was far too courteous to show any sign. Sanato's business was his own; and he had a meeting with Shion Nys.

The Empress caused more than a bit of unease in the corporate circles he frequented, but Sanato himself was unafraid. He thought he understood the esper, at least well enough to realize she would not jeopardize his standing with a major corporation without good cause; furthermore, as long as he had something to offer, he was quite certain that she would refrain herself. This attitude was not unlike that of several of his colleagues, who nonetheless viewed the freelance as a dangerous loose cannon; the irony was not lost on Sanato. Nor did he fail to see the irony when he thought of how his "esteemed" colleague, Araki, had gotten a sudden dose of the same attitude from Raven.

Sanato had thought Araki clever enough to overcome his own arrogance, but now he knew he had been sadly mistaken. The new head of Esper Management had managed to simultaneously antagonize and underestimate a girl who could tear armor plate apart without touching it. To Sanato that was the height of stupidity. The hard-liners who had seen him shunted away from Esper Management, to a meaningless assignment in the London office, had thought Sanato's methods overly soft. What they hadn't realized is that his methods were not merely a reflection of his style and personal ethics; they were, in his reasoned opinion, the only way to get good, consistent performance of an employee too valuable to let go and too powerful to control.

Sanato Shigeru. A name she had not heard in some time. He'd had the nerve to offer her a job training the young Raven Clark several years ago, a job offer so audacious in its nature she couldn't help but accept. And in the process she'd actually befriended Raven, something she couldn't have possibly imagined in her wildest dreams.

Now he was calling on her once again, which was somewhat unusual. After her meeting with raven New Years Day, Shion had done a little checking and had discovered Sanato had been transferred overseas. But now he was back. Why?

Such a serious matter (for she knew this was no mere social call), required a serious approach. Thus, she had dressed accordingly, in a simple and severe skirt, blouse, and jacket combination, all in basic black. She had debated wearing one of her Chinese silk dresses, as the location was one of Neo York's finer Chinese restaurant, but quickly decided against it. Sanato wasn't some neophyte executive she could distract with a display of leg and silk-sheathed bust, but a very canny and experienced player of corporate politics.

"Aaah, Miss Nys." Sanato gallantly stood up and bowed to the Empress, then stepped forward to offer his hand in the western fashion. "I am so pleased that you decided to accept my humble invitation. I am sure you will find the menu to your liking."

Returning his bow, Shion took the offered hand. "I am sure I will, Mr. Sanato." Her smile, while warm enough, was counterbalanced by the cool look in her eyes.

"Please, sit down." Sanato politely waited for his guest to be seated before he took his own chair. "Might I recommend the dumplings? They are a personal favorite of mine. It is a pity, truly, that none of my colleagues would come to such a place. They are too wrapped up in their own prejudices."

"Certainly." Shion took a sip of her water. "I have found that I cannot afford to be prejudiced, myself. It can be bad for business."

"Very wise of you," Sanato replied, steepling his fingers. "I am given to understand you have recently paid a visit to a mutual friend. How was Ms. Clark?"

Shion was quiet for a moment as she considered what to tell Sanato and how. "Ms. Clark is doing as can be expected, considering her current environment." Which was true enough, and sounded innocent enough—unless you knew the environment in question.

"Indeed," Sanato said. "She recently gave my esteemed colleague Araki more than a bit of a headache. Though he doesn't show it, I know he is rather frazzled by the recent developments, but considering his methods he should have known something like this would have happened sooner or later. And, of course, unlike his previous assignments, he cannot simply rid himself of the troublesome employee." He smiled thinly. "Tell me, Ms. Nys, am I mistaken in the belief that you would like to relieve my colleague of this troublesome burden?"

Well, that certainly was more direct than she expected. "I have already taken steps to assist her in this matter, yes..."

"Yes, I had imagined as much. As you are no doubt aware, the steps my company has taken to ensure Ms. Clark's continued loyalty are not the obvious ones." Sanato put down his menu and looked up at the Empress. "Forgive me for being bold here, Ms. Nys, but I have a proposal to make."

Shion glanced up from her own menu briefly. "And that would be?"

"It is a simple one, really. I am given to understand you have a business relationship with Mr. Stone, of the Spycorp company. I should very much like an interview with him." He paused. He was unused to being so direct in negotiations, but there were few other ways to address such a perilous topic. "A job interview. I believe it is well within your power to arrange." Sanato paused again. "In exchange, I can assist you in your endeavor. I am sure you are aware of Mr. Carstairs. I can provide you with information you might find difficult to find elsewhere, and furthermore," he smiled, "I can deal with another... 'tether' that the company can use to force Ms. Clark back into the fold. One that you might not be aware of, but rest assured, you will not succeed unless this matter is also resolved."

Folding the menu, Shion set it down on the table. "I see you desire the driect approach in this matter. So be it." She sipped at her tea. "I can get you in touch with Mr. Stone. As for Mr. Carstairs, I will admit I have not be able to find out all I'd like. As for the final matter, I would like to know the details before we continue."

Sanato smiled mildly. "Ms. Clark has another close friend within the organization, one whom the corporation could use to threaten her as effectively as they might use Mr. Carstairs. Perhaps more. Someone right under her nose, but who is tied more tightly to the corporation than a mere vehicle repair technician." He sipped and added, "I can use a few favors to have the ties on this person undone. Timing will, of course, be crucial, but I believe this will be much easier than anything you could engineer."

"So I am to extract Mr. Carstairs while you arrange for the release of this other individual?"

Sanato shrugged. "That is more or less how I had imagined things would happen. Of course, my colleague's people are watching all elements of this puzzle very closely, and if one comes under threat, they will immediately secure the others. Therefore, it is all but necessary that all three actions—including Ms. Clark's own extraction, of course—occur within a very short time span."

Shion nodded. "Of course. Although, I suspect Ms. Clark will be quite capable of arranging her own extraction once the time comes."

"Indeed, but we will nonetheless need to communicate with her in a way that does not arouse supiscion. Her timing must be perfect as well, lest she be sedated as a preventive measure. She must also be provided with a place to teleport to; one capable of removing the management collar and rapidly moving an unconscious esper."

Collecting her thoughts, Shion took another drink of tea. "What is it you wish of me, Mr. Sanato? Once I know where to find Mr. Carstairs I can extract him easily enough, but what then?"

Sanato smiled. "I know what you are truly asking. What's in it for me? Why am I doing this?" His smile broadened; this frankness was relaxing. Perhaps this is what had endeared the proper corporate executive to the underbelly of the world, where he kept so many contacts. "My career is at a dead end, Ms. Nys. Araki and the others who side with him have shunted me off, using the security of the esper weapons as a pretext, but in truth because I thought the conflict with DFS to be a colossal waste of time and resources. By now, of course, they realize the wisdom of my methods" He shrugged. "They assigned me to some mindless post in London, where I have little to do but fill papers and meet bland government officials all over the world. It is not what I had in mind for my career. Thus, it is time for a change. Spycorp represents a valuable opportunity, a chance to make my mark in a new company that, unlike most startups, comes ready-built with a vast intake of cash. The business plays to my strengths, and Spycorp direly needs someone like me, who has ears to the ground in the Zero Zone and in the air at the highest levels of corporate arcologies, if you'll forgive the expression." He sipped at his tea and added, "Furthermore, as I can see, Raven's friends are coming through for her rescue. It is a street that works both ways. Though I do not presume to think you, or her, beholden to me in any way as a result of this operation—I trust that my actions will earn me your regard, both of you. Such regard is extremely valuable, as I'm sure you are aware, and could lead to profitable business arangements for all three of us."

"To be frank then, I wash your back and you will wash mine." Shion finished off her tea and refilled the cup. "As I said, I can certainly get you in contact with Mr. Stone. And I will extract this Carstairs once I know where he is. As for the future, well..." she sipped at her tea. "I will have to wait and see what the next day brings." Shion smiled to Sanato over the rim of her tea cup. "Precognition is an esper talent denied to me, after all."

Sanato smiled back. "Quite." He tapped his tea cup against Shion. "To the future, and to what the next day might bring."

Lora was a bit confused and double-checked her address. But no, it was indeed the address on Sanato's printed e-mail. She looked around, but even considering there might have been a typo (which, given Sanato's attention to detail, was highly unlikely), there was nowhere in this neighborhood she'd expect to find the executive in. She looked forward again. "Al's Diner?" It looked like your typical family restaurant—a greasy spoon. Anyone could recite the menu of any of these places by heart: hamburger, french fries, onion rings, club sandwich, beef liver...

She pulled her car into the parking lot and found a space not immediately next to any other vehicles. As she got out of the Kage, the sounds of the nearby Jersey Turnpike wafted over her. Early afternoon and the rush hour traffic was already building. The smell of exhaust fumes hung in the air. Good thing she'd be going against the flow on the way back to Neo York. She told the Kage to seal itself and turn the auto-protect systems on, and walked toward the entrance to the consciously retro-styled diner.

She had returned to her apartment from another training session with Raven and was just getting ready to go eat. Checking her email, she had found the usual assortment of management notices and personnel fluff that clogged the bandwidth of any corporate employee's inbox. And one surprise. An email from her old boss Shigeru Sanato, saying he'd like to meet with her for lunch. Innocuous enough, except for the sender. She hadn't seen Sanato since he'd been transferred away from his position in the Esper Division. He'd been transferred to the London office, and aside from a few queries and one short live conversation over the matrix to establish what had happened, she'd had no contact from him. Hadn't expected any, in fact. They hadn't exactly been friends, although there was a level of professional respect between them that went slightly beyond the usual employer-employee dynamic. He'd treated her as well as any supervisor had, and without any sort of condescension. In return he'd gained more of Lora's personal respect and loyalty than anyone before or since. So she felt obligated to respond to his message and say she'd meet him at the appointed time and place. She expected he'd simply want to meet somewhere and just catch up with an old acquaintance.

Lora could have sworn Sanato had better taste in restaurants though.

She walked in the front door and saw him almost immediately, in a booth near the back, close to the kitchen, sipping coffee and reading the paper. He looked up, saw her and waved her over. He'd mentioned casual dress in the message, so she'd just thrown on a set of slacks, a blouse with a jacket over it and some running shoes. What surprised her was that he'd dressed similarly, in a sweater and... was he actually wearing _jeans_?

As Lora sat down, Sanato greeted her with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. "Good day, Ms. Doubet. I am glad you could find the place. It is rather out of the way."

Lora shook her head a bit, smiling slightly despite her intent to remain cool, "And not what I'd expect from you. I gather that was the intent?"

"Bravo," Sanato said, handing her a menu. "Somewhere where my colleagues would not be caught dead in."

"Ah... So this isn't just a social call. I'm crushed, of course." Lora grinned.

"I'll wager," said Sanato.

He waited for Lora to order a cola and a small burger from the wait-droid, then he steepled his fingers thoughtfully. "How are you these days?"

"Pas mal, all things considered. You?"

Sanato snorted. "I have been shunted off to a mindless paper-pushing job in London," he replied. "Rather not the career I had seen for myself. And you, Ms. Doubet? How is your... job satisfaction?"

Sanato wasn't in full 'corporate code speak' mode, probably for her benefit. But Lora took the hint nonetheless. "Low. Basement level, you might even say."

"I see. And how is Ms. Clark these days?"

"The same. But she's worse off than me..." Lora then shook her head abruptly and said, "Okay, look... You know I hate this sort of double-speak. I put up with it in the tower because I have to. But we're not _in_ the tower. You brought us here so we'd be out of the way. I have to assume we're not being listened to. Can we cut to the chase here and assume we're not being listened to? Because if we are, the corporate-speak isn't going to fool anyone."

"You wound me, Ms. Doubet. It was never my intention to be cryptic. To tell the truth, I have myself grown quite tired of the 'double-speak', as you call it, and I do not rue that it is falling out of favor somewhat." Sanato chuckled. "It seems errors in interpreting various dialects have led to some rather expensive lawsuits. But I digress."

"Yeah," Lora chuckled slightly, "Talk about bad habits, I started doing it too. Right... So... what's up, boss?"

Sanato looked at Lora a bit shocked, then he did something very unusual—he burst out laughing.

Lora looked at him for a moment, not quite sure how to take in the sight of Sanato laughing, then the moment caught up with her and she joined in.

After a moment, Sanato recovered his cool. "Well, that was certainly refreshing. Humor is a scarce quality in the London office."

Lora responded, still smiling, "I bet."

"Now," Sanato said, suddenly serious again, "my question about Ms. Clark was not an idle one, nor was it double-speak—how is she?"

Lora got to the point, "Physically, very good. Even better than the last time you saw her. Coordinated, even fast. She's not clumsy anymore, not by a long shot. Doesn't depend on her powers to keep her from falling anymore. Mentally and emotionally? Holding up, but not happy about her circumstances in the slightest, not that anyone would be. Humiliation and imprisonment doesn't do good things for the psyche. But she's sane and stable. I've helped as much as I can in that regard."

"Thank you, Ms. Doubet," he replied. Then he smiled. "I am told she gave my, ah, *colleague* Araki a bit of a headache. For my amusement, I had hoped you could tell me more about that."

Lora grinned wolfishly, "Oh yeah. Headache is putting it mildly..." She told Sanato what Raven had related to her about how she had staged her 'rebellion' against Ms Davies. Going into detail about Raven's mode of dress and attitude change towards her keepers.

"Davies just did _not_ know how to handle Raven for awhile. Didn't even want to see her. She took to sending down directives through email and myself and the other minders. Raven even tempted me to color my hair as well." She laughed. "In the end, I thought better of it. I have to keep up appearances after all. I think they still think I'm 100% company loyal. Nice little cog in the machine. For Raven's sake, I have to keep them thinking that. But I have to admit, the idea of walking into Davies office with pink hair and seeing her burst an artery keeps me warm at night."

"I rather imagine!" Again, Sanato gave an honest laugh. "I had heard bits and pieces, but I had not expected Araki's underling to be so dismayed. It is clear to me that his grasp of the situation is even more tenuous than I had expected." He looked at Lora, smiling. "How would you like to make this grasp even more tenuous?"

"Depends." Lora was again serious, "What did you have in mind?"

"I would like to make a deal with you," Sanato said. "There is something you can find out for me, something that will help Ms. Clark immensely. In exchange, I shall have Human Resources arrange a layoff for you. With a generous severance package."

Lora blinked, staring. "That's... that would be..." A voice in the back of her head reminded her that something too good to be true usually was. "Yes, I'd be very interested in that. But... is that possible? How would you get away with that? No, wait. Don't tell me. Just... could you really do it?"

"Get away with it?" Sanato chuckled. "Let me put it this way. I intend to 'get away' with more than just that. In fact, I intend to 'get away' entirely." He steepled his fingers again. "Some people in Human Resources owe me some very large favors. A rather significant matter about improper employee screening that I allowed to slide in exchange for some quid pro quo. An administrative mix-up, where the wrong employee is laid off, and a calculation error, where the severance package is made in far too large an amount, will not be too hard to arrange. Of course, someone will be in hot water for it, but they are fine with it. Truth be told, they do not intend to remain employed at Shiroko-Tsuhi for too long either."

"And this would all be legal? Irreversible in any court?"

"From your end of things, there could be no legal issues whatsoever. Once the offer is in your hands it cannot be rescinded should you choose to accept it. The only one exposing himself to legal consequences is the Human Resources person—and it will be easy enough to engineer a sequence of events that will give enough evidence to plead a failure of process in the court of law. If the case were to be litigated it would cost more than the potential gain and thus Shiroko-Tsuhi will not sue."

As Lora thought about it all, she knew Sanato could do as he said. Her freedom was in reach at last. Her freedom... Then she damned herself for her selfishness.

"I'd love to take that offer, Mr. Sanato. I wonder if you can comprehend how badly I want to. But Raven... she's my best friend, and I can't just leave her. I can't do that to her."

Sanato smiled as if he expected the question. "Rather funny you should mention that. What I would like is for you to penetrate the Psychokinetic management mainframe, and locate the whereabouts of a certain vehicle repair technician."

Lora saw the whole thing fall together. Click, click, click... boom.

She grinned. "And you also arrange your own exit as well. That. Is. Fucking. Brilliant. I am SO in on this."

Sanato grinned back. "I am glad that I could convince you Ms. Doubet. I may also require you to pass a message to Ms. Clark. Timing will be crucial—you *must* leave the arcology at the appointed time."

"Shouldn't be a problem, but I'll take every precaution with the timing anyway."

"Excellent. I shall e-mail you with instructions on where to send the data once you have it. And I suppose I do not need to remind you of the importance of secrecy."

"Of course not. So... there's only one little question I'm wondering about now. Why? What brought this on? You're a company man. Even if they shafted you, you still had a pension of your own... stability... You might even have worked your way back up the ladder. So... why?"

"Of course, you would have to ask this as well." Sanato sat back. "I shall give you the long answer. Shiroko-Tsuhi is about to change. With Jinsei doing what it is doing, the war with DFS is on hold. Tensions will cool as both sides get into the habit of working together. The merger will hold—rather amusing, don't you think, that Jinsei will be the cause of the merger's success?"

"At present, I fill a nonessential role. And the faction that I think will win the shakeup—the faction to which Araki belongs—will not allow me to progress outside of it. My career is all but stunted—but I have an opportunity right in front of me. This 'Spycorp' thing is a most unusual thing. A startup with deep pockets. They are woefully lacking in knowledgeable personnel. Even Mr. Stone has little real knowledge of the underworld that I have been in contact with for years now. With my knowledge and my contacts on both sides of the Hudson, so to speak, I am exactly the sort of person the company was looking for. And being there, from the start, is quite exhilarating. I may well find myself in a very high position, and faster than I ever would have in a traditional Megacorp."

"Ah..." Lora's grin grew wider, "Somehow it relieves me to know that at the heart of it all is enlightened self-interest. The world makes sense again."

"Indeed. And if, as a Spycorp employee, I ever find myself in need of a freelance combat cyborg..."

Lora snorted a laugh, "Of course, of course... You'll know where to find a reliable one for hire." Then she recovered her cool and said, "Now, if there are any other precise details I need to know...?"

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